USC running back Allen Bradford stiff arms UCLA’ safety Tony Dye for a big gain during the second quarter of a game at the Coliseum on Nov. 28, 2009.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
USC safety Taylor Mays tackles UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince during the second quarter of a game at the Coliseum on Nov. 28, 2009.(Alex Gallardo / Los Angeles Times)
USC Coach Pete Carroll celebrates a touchdown against UCLA during a game at the Coliseumon Nov. 28, 2009.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
USC linebacker Malcolm Smith intercepts a pass in front of UCLA tight end Ryan Moya and returns it for a touchdown during the first quarter of a game on Nov. 28, 2009.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel looks for answers during a game against USC at the Coliseum on Nov. 28, 2009.(Alex Gallardo / Los Angeles Times)
USC quarterback Matt Barkley looks to pass against UCLA during a game at the Coliseum on Nov. 28, 2009.(Alex Gallardo / Los Angeles Times)
USC receiver Damian Williams eludes UCLA tacklers during a punt return in the first quarter of a game at the Coliseum on Nov. 28, 2009.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
USC linebacker Taylor Mays takes down UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince during the first quarter of a game at the Coliseum on Nov. 28, 2009.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
USC defensive back Josh Pinkard pulls the ball away from UCLA receiver Nelson Rosario to cause a fumble during a game on Nov. 28, 2009.(Alex Gallardo / Los Angeles Times)
USC receiver Damian Williams celebrates with teammates after catching a long pass against UCLA in the final minute of a game at the Coliseum on Nov. 28, 2009.(Alex Gallardo / Los Angeles Times)
UCLA linebacker Reggie Carter has to be held back as he approaches the USC bench late in the fourth quarter of a game at the Coliseum on Nov. 28, 2009.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
UCLA players are ordered back to the bench by coaches and referees during a game with USC at the Coliseum on Nov. 28, 2009.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
The USC-UCLA football rivalry, never lacking for compelling plot points, just got a lot more interesting.
Borrowing a style used against him two weeks ago, USC Coach Pete Carroll poured it on an already beaten UCLA in the final minute at the Coliseum on Saturday night.
Up by two touchdowns and with the ball and game in hand, USC scored on a long pass to make the final score 28-7 before a crowd of 85,713.
“It’s just the heart of a competitor, just battling,” Carroll said.
UCLA had just called a timeout, and would have used two more to try to get USC to punt and get the ball back.
But on the next play, USC quarterback Matt Barkley faked a handoff into the line, stepped back, and found Damian Williams with a 48-yard bomb for a touchdown that nearly led to a brawl between the teams after players left the bench area and went onto the field.
“They have every right to throw the ball deep,” UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel said. “It’s our job to cover it.”
The ending took away some shine earned by the USC defense, which had broken down spectacularly in losses to Oregon and Stanford.
USC players had spent two agonizingly long weeks answering questions about their toughness and fortitude.
The criticism never seemed to stop in the wake of the unit’s performance in a 55-21 loss to Stanford at the Coliseum, a victory the Cardinal punctuated by attempting a two-point conversion when the score was 48-21.
So USC linebacker Malcolm Smith led a defensive charge against UCLA. The No. 24 Trojans intercepted three passes and recovered a fumble en route to their third consecutive victory over UCLA, their 10th in 11 years.
“Not saying anything bad about them but they really weren’t a tough offense,” said Smith, who had 15 tackles and returned an interception for a touchdown. “Hopefully this just carries on.
“We are kind of back to that attitude. Just be the players we’re supposed to be.”
Junior tailback Allen Bradford rushed for two touchdowns as USC improved to 8-3 overall and 5-3 in the Pacific 10 Conference with representatives from the Holiday, Emerald and Poinsettia bowls looking on.
The Trojans’ possible bowl scenarios will become clearer Thursday night after Oregon plays Oregon State for the Pacific 10 Conference title in Eugene, Ore.
USC concludes its regular-season schedule next Saturday against Arizona, a team that will test a Trojans defense that regained its confidence against the Bruins.
“We talked about it all week, the last two weeks really, just how we wanted to bounce back and play really hard,” middle linebacker Chris Galippo said. “That’s how it should look every week.”
Smith’s 62-yard interception return for a touchdown in the first quarter started USC on its way in the 79th game between the crosstown rivals.
Safety Will Harris’ third-quarter interception set up the second USC touchdown and Josh Pinkard’s fourth-quarter interception ended a threat.
UCLA pulled to within a touchdown when fullback Chane Moline took a direct snap and scored on a two-yard touchdown run with 5 minutes 41 seconds left.
But the Trojans answered with a 73-yard drive that Bradford capped with his second touchdown run.
Save for the splash of color created by both teams wearing their home jerseys, the game was devoid of style points.
UCLA had hoped to hit the Trojans when they were down.
The Bruins, who lost their first five conference games, were riding the momentum of wins over Washington, Washington State and Arizona State.
UCLA’s defense led the conference in interceptions and tackles for losses, and the unit mostly did its part Saturday.
But UCLA’s offense never really threatened to score in the first three quarters as the Bruins finished the regular season 6-6 and 3-6 in conference play.
UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince completed 10 of 22 passes for 90 yards with two interceptions before suffering a shoulder sprain.
Kevin Craft came on to engineer the 13-play, 65-yard scoring drive but he could not produce a miracle finish.
Barkley completed 18 of 26 passes for 206 yards with an interception and one controversial touchdown.
But the Trojans’ defense won the game by controlling the Bruins.
“They tried some pretty cool things and we were able to adjust and keep things in order,” Carroll said.
Smith’s interception return for a touchdown gave USC a 7-0 lead in the lowest-scoring first half between the teams since 1976.
The Trojans outgained the Bruins, 140-138, in the first two periods but neither Barkley nor Prince could engineer a scoring drive.
After the teams traded possessions to start the game, USC went three and out the second time it got the ball.
But the Trojans’ inability to move the ball actually ended up setting the stage for perhaps the most important sequence of the game.
Smith was called for a personal foul after Terrence Austin’s fair catch, giving the Bruins a first down at USC’s 45-yard line.
On third down at the 39, Smith stepped in front a Prince pass in the left flat and sprinted down the sideline in front of the Bruins bench for a touchdown that gave USC a 7-0 lead with 6:31 left in the first quarter.
USC put itself in position for another opportunity when Ryan McMahon downed Jacob Harfman’s punt at the Bruins one-yard line late in the period.
Prince got UCLA out of trouble with a 17-yard third-down completion to receiver Taylor Embree, but the drive stalled at the 44.
Williams’ 24-yard punt return gave the Trojans a start at the Bruins’ 48, and Barkley’s 28-yard pass to tight end Anthony McCoy moved the ball to the 25.
But cornerback Alterraun Verner intercepted a pass intended for Williams, ending the Trojans’ best threat of the half.
Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @LATimesklein